ELIZABETHTOWN — Essex County lawmakers have tentatively OK’d establishing a trial program for the towns of Westport, Elizabethtown and Willsboro to contract with the county for property-assessment services.
The length of the pilot project would probably be one year but wouldn’t be be set until it gets another vote at the County Board of Supervisors Ways and Means session on May 28.
If it passes then, a final vote would take place at the June 4 regular meeting.
Supervisor Daniel Connell (D-Westport) proposed the effort as part of the three towns’ Coordinated Assessment Program, known as CAP.
The towns have entered into an agreement under Section 579 of the State Real Property Tax Law, so one assessor can provide assessment services for all municipalities in the program.
“We are in essence treated as one assessment unit,” Connell said. “If this is denied (by the county), we cannot even try to do this for another six years.”
‘PROFIT FOR COUNTY’
Connell said by law all sole assessor terms in the state expire Sept. 30, and new six-year terms start Oct. 1, which is why they are proposing it now.
The three towns in the CAP have already switched from elected assessors to an appointed professional sole assessor.
“Small towns find it difficult to find people qualified to be assessors,” he said. “It’s more of a problem all the time.”
He said the towns in the program have agreed to pay $14 per parcel to the county for assessing services.
“If we hire a sole assessor, we are locked for six years,” Connell said. “We believe the county has professionals on staff that can do a better job of assessing than we can find on the open market.”
County Real Property Tax Service Director Charli Lewis said a county assessor would cost $55,885 in salary and benefits, with $7,400 profit for the county, based on the towns’ projected payments.
She said the county might also get about $5,000 from the state in shared services aid.
Lewis said no one is designated as an assessor in her office, and the State Office of Real Property Services would have to approve someone.
“We would have to do a promotion,” she said. “I sent down three applicants, and all three were sent back as qualified.”
The job would represent a $5,900 salary increase for the person chosen, she said.
County Manager Daniel Palmer said property assessment is something for which the county is capable of producing a professional product.
“We’re certainly willing to do it. It’s not that we’re advocating to do it. If this board says no, it’s OK with us.”
Supervisor Thomas Scozzafava (R-Moriah) said he was worried that the county could be liable if someone filed litigation over an assessment.
“The towns are solely responsible for any court claims or litigation,” Connell told him.
Supervisor George Canon (R-Newcomb) said he’d “never support the county being in the assessing business,” and sees it as a step toward full countywide assessing.
“It’s an attempt to look at something and see if there’s another way of doing this that might be more cost effective,” Connell said.
“Other towns may come to the county because they’re having trouble finding people (sole assessors) to do this.”
Trying to find a sole assessor in the area can be difficult, Supervisor Ronald Moore (R-North Hudson) said.
“It certainly is worth a one-year trial,” Moore said. “I’d feel very comfortable with the county doing my assessing rather than getting somebody from Syracuse.”
Some towns have hired a Syracuse firm to serve as their sole assessors.
“Give us the opportunity to try something different that may save a substantial amount of money in the future,” Connell pleaded. “We really want to try this.
“We have a problem in our three towns. This is our solution.”
The County Finance Committee voted 5-2 in favor of the pilot program, with Supervisors Debra Malaney (R-Ticonderoga) and Randy Preston (I-Wilmington) absent. Canon and Scozzafava were opposed and Connell, Moore, Margaret Bartley (D-Elizabethtown), William Ferebee (R-Keene) and Roby Politi (R-North Elba) in favor.
A county assessor program for some towns is already in use in Clinton County, but has never been proposed in Essex County before now.
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